A significant change in the concept of community and school gardens was made possible by a grant to Eat Smart Black Mountain (ESBM), a program of the Town of Black Mountain, NC’s Recreation and Parks Department. The community garden had a small beginning, spearheaded by Dr John Wilson, a retired local pediatrician who never let retirement stop him from guiding children and their families to good health. In fact, because of Dr. Wilson and a group of dedicated leaders and volunteers, children are eating and loving spinach, kale, beets and other fresh produce. And this, they hope, will give all residents a healthier future.
It all started when Dr. Wilson opened his backyard garden to others who wanted space and noticed a growing demand for gardening opportunities. He petitioned the town for public space. The town had recently purchased land which extended to the river through a flood plain, useless for permanent structures. Permission was granted to build a garden there and Dr. Wilson asked the town’s Health Initiative for help. Michael Mayer, Chair of the Health Initiative, said they were seeking ways to improve health and reduce obesity, so they incorporated community and school gardening into a Fit Community grant proposal. Fit Community was a North Carolina Health and Wellness Trust Fund grant program designed for North Carolina communities with the goal of increasing routine physical activity and healthy eating through diverse partnerships, promotions, programs, policies, and physical projects. Gardening provides opportunities for both physical activity and healthy eating, making their proposal successful.
That was July 2007 and they had 13 gardeners in the community garden and interest in creating school gardens by the principals of both local schools. The grant provided approximately $58,000 over two years plus technical support from Active Living By Design. Since then, partners have leveraged this money with other smaller grants and a lot of volunteer efforts into a thriving gardening culture.
An early highlight in the first year of the grant involved a group of volunteers from another state. The plan was to build raised bed gardens at the Primary School. “I remember waking up to steady rain,” Michael said. ”We were uncertain whether the volunteers would show up.” But like a foreshadowing of the tenacity of this project, volunteers arrived on time and built four garden beds despite the rain. This group has returned annually to provide work and services.
From that simple beginning, a new culture of growing food and eating fresh produce developed. “This year we have 73 families participating in the community garden and have 24 beds dedicated to the community” said Diana McCall, the garden supervisor. In addition to supervising garden activities, Diana also conducts nutritional programs and cooking demonstrations widely in the community and schools.
Produce from the garden helps feed those who are food insecure. Families who rent garden beds donate produce from the first five feet (10%) of their plot to feed those in need. Gardeners also offer surplus harvest and donate produce that ripens when they are out of town. Hundreds of volunteers from partner organizations like Warren Wilson College, The Welcome Table, Swannanoa Valley Montessori School, Ridgecrest Conference Center, and Buncombe County Master Gardeners help throughout the year to prepare and care for the gardens, especially the 24 community donation beds. In 2011, more than 1,100 volunteer hours were logged and 4,089 pounds of produce were donated to those in need.
In addition to donated garden produce, ESBM partners with the MANNA Food Bank, a private, non-profit that collects, stores, warehouses and distributes food to other non-profits throughout 16 counties in Western North Carolina. In this partnership, MANNA provides food for a school backpack program (providing food on the weekends to children in need) and also donates food to the community’s other efforts to reduce hunger, including a lunch program serving an average of 200 weekly. A local non-profit, The Welcome Table, orchestrates the lunches and a weekly produce distribution (replacing a monthly distribution by ESBM), with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
Gardening and nutrition is now integrated into the curriculum at Black Mountain’s Primary and Elementary Schools. Both schools have gardens on site supported by volunteers, parents, and teachers. A strong partnership between the schools and the Community Garden allows for regular field trips. Master Gardeners and the Community Garden Supervisor support the school staff in teaching gardening and nutrition lessons. The Fit Community grant enabled a portable demonstration kitchen and a resource library, available to the community and the schools. Nutrition classes during and after school, garden clubs and tasting events increase students’ exposure to fresh food. This is making gardening and healthy eating a permanent part of the educational experience.
Finally, strong support is provided by the town and many partners to sustain the work. The Health Service Program Administrator, a permanent full-time position in the Recreation Department, provides administrative support to the garden programs while the Community Garden Supervisor, now a permanent part-time position, handles direct oversight of the garden. The town has included the community garden in its Master Plan for space utilization and the Public Services Department provides support for major garden projects.
Clearly, Eat Smart Black Mountain’s efforts are strongly rooted and expanding. The established policy and environmental supports are just the beginning. Future dreams include a commercial greenhouse at the Community Garden which would provide space to grow vegetable starts for the garden’s donation program, rentable space for private gardeners and area farmers, and job training opportunities. Such a facility would further expand on Dr. Wilson’s original vision for the community garden, which now bears his name.